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Poison gas leak kills DuPont worker

by: David Gutierrez

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The Belle plant in Charleston, W.V. reported on Jan. 22 that it had detected a leak of the highly toxic and flammable chemical methyl chloride, which is used to make the herbicide hexazinone (marketed as Velpar). Approximately 1,900 pounds of the material had escaped over the course of up to five days before the leak was detected. The next morning, the factory reported releasing "less than 20 pounds" of sulfuric acid during the "spent acid recovery process."

Less than seven hours later, a leak in a transfer hose caused a worker to be sprayed in the face with phosgene, a highly toxic gas used as a chemical weapon during World War I. Although the hose was not in use at the time, traces of the lethal chemical had remained in it from a prior use.

The worker was transferred to the hospital for treatment, but did not survive.

Phosgene is used in the manufacture of polyurethane and polycarbonate plastics.

After the three incidents, DuPont announced that it would be shutting down most of the factory for up to two weeks to conduct comprehensive safety tests. Even as the tests were beginning, however, a worker reported a "small electrical fire" at a tank full of sulfuric acid. The company later stated that the incident was actually "electrical arcing" and not a fire.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has ordered an inspection of the plant, and at least three different federal agencies have said they may conduct their own investigations. The agencies include the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.